e-Commerse Holds Great Hope for Africa, Experts Say

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Participants at UNCTAD’s eCommerce Week 2019 have been told that e-commerce can significantly boost free trade across Africa and therefore, help realise the objectives of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).

‘’E-commerce has the potential to lift intra-African trade from the current rate of 18% and to boost Africa’s share of global trade, currently estimated at less than 3%’’, said Ajay Kumar Bramdeo, the African Union’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, at a session on Digitalisation and the realisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area for digital transformation in Africa.

Participants celebrated the impending entry into force of the AfCFTA, a milestone achieved on 2 April when the agreement reached the minimum number of ratifications required, 22, thanks to its approval by Gambia’s parliament.

The AfCFTA seeks to create an integrated African market of 1.27 billion consumers, expected to reach 1.7 billion by 2030, with an aggregated gross domestic product of up to $3.4 trillion, said Amani Abou-Zeid, the African Union commissioner for infrastructure and energy.

Digitalisation has the potential to lead not only to Africa’s digital transformation, but also to serve as a catalyst for the continent’s overall structural transformation, Ms. Abou-Zeid said.

However, various issues need to be addressed for Africa to take advantage of current technological innovations and facilitate the achievement of the objectives of the AfCFTA, which was adopted by African Union nations at a summit in Rwanda in March 2018

‘’In many African countries, adequate and affordable information and communications technology (ICT) connectivity to enable digitalization to take place is still an issue’’, Ms. Abou-Zeid noted.

The other issue is whether Africa currently has the legal framework and enabling environment for digital trade and other digital-related activities to flourish in the future AfCFTA market. Other concerns include trust, data privacy and cyber security.

‘’We are moving towards an integrated African market. Isn’t it appropriate to factor in the digital dimension of such a market?” Ms. Abou-Zeid said.

She underscored the importance of synergies between development and technical partners, noting that though only 1% of all funding provided under Aid for Trade is currently allocated to ICT solutions and multilateral development banks are investing just 1% of their total spending on ICT projects, Africa still boasts a plethora of initiatives related to digital trade.

UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant observed that the rate of digitalization remains uneven across Africa.

‘’In some countries, less than 10% of the population uses the internet and only 18% of households have access to it throughout the continent. In most African countries, less than 5% of the population currently buys online’’, she said.

In this respect, the AfCFTA represents a godsend. ‘’Digitalisation could be to Africa what coal and steel have been to the European Union’’, Durant said.

The European Coal and Steel Community, created in 1951, was a foundation stone of what eventually become the wider European economic union

The AfCFTA offers Africa the opportunity to build its digital infrastructure, both at the national and regional level, and to have a common regulatory framework, consistent competition laws, and their functional application, Durant.

Digitalisation and the AfCFTA offer small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa the opportunity to expand across borders if the existing digital divide is bridged and an enabling environment is created, various speakers at the session noted.

‘’Digitalisation allows businesses to unlock the potential of the Internet, to go beyond small national markets and to scale up their operations’’, said Kamil El Khatib, an ICT policy analyst at the African Development Bank.

‘’The African continent is fragmented but we will unite it digitally’’, said Cedric Atangana of Wecashup, a pan-African payment platform. The fifth edition of eCommerce Week – an annual gathering that draws leading e-commerce figures, start-ups, policy makers and officials from around the world – is taking place in Geneva from April 1-5. The theme of this year’s week, which comprises dozens of sessions, is From Digitalisation to Development.

Last December, UNCTAD organised its first-ever regional edition, Africa eCommerce Week, hosted by Kenya.

Meanwhile, as identity plays a critical role in the digital economy, countries have a duty of care to protect human rights when implementing programmes that create digital identities, experts said at UNCTAD eCommerce Week in Geneva, Switzerland on April 4.

In a session that examined the concept of digital identity and digital rights as they relate to government programmes and e-commerce, attendees learned that people participate in the digital economy if they trust that their digital identities are secure and free from misuse.

‘’Digital identity provides accessibility and inclusion, but identifying people can put them at risk’’, said Guillermo Beltra, a policy director at Access Now, a non-governmental organization that defends the digital rights of users at risk around the world.

‘’If we don’t get digital identity programmes right from the start, they can be prone to misuse and undermine development objectives’’, Beltra said.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide the ambitious target that all people will be able to obtain a ‘’legal identity’’ by 2030.

New forms of digital identities create opportunities to enhance sustainable development through e-commerce, e-communication, e-government, and e-health, among other sectors, said David-Olivier Jaquet-Chiffelle, a professor of digital investigation and identification at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne.

On the flip side, digital identities can heighten money laundering, create new criminal opportunities and endanger democratic processes, warned Jaquet-Chiffelle. With burgeoning digital footprints also come risks such as negative profiling, large personal data leaks, identity theft and illegal creation of digital identities.

‘’It is important to think about all the potential benefits and risks when developing systems that manage identities’’, Jaquet-Chiffelle noted while providing insights into the foundations of digital identity.

The session, led by Estonia, examined experiences and examples of various countries in rolling out digital identity systems.

In Estonia, most government services are already digitalized, said Andre Pung, the Baltic nation’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

‘’You can do many things digitally in Estonia, but you still can’t get married electronically. the last elections, 20% of Estonians voted electronically – the highest ever’’, Pung said.

Participants also learned about Estonia’s e-residency programme, which allows non-Estonians access to Estonian services such as company formation, banking, payment processing, and taxation.

Benin is following in Estonia’s footsteps in using digital identity to enhance the provision of government services and to address developmental challenges.

‘’As a least developed country, we are learning from Estonia and partnering with them’’, said Eloi Laourou, Benin’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation.

‘’Digital identity is about human beings. It is essential for economic and social progress. In Benin, we have a legal and policy framework for managing digital identity to improve the way we do things, particularly in the area of e-government’’, said Laourou.

He said Benin has put a premium on digital identity to improve public administration as well as to enhance services in sectors such as healthcare, birth registration, national identity management, agriculture, housing, and security services.

The fifth edition of eCommerce Week – an annual gathering that draws leading e-commerce figures, start-ups, policy makers and officials from around the world – is taking place in Geneva from April 1-5. The theme of this year’s week, which comprises dozens of sessions, is From Digitalisation to Development.

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